A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

How did cheese originate?

August 30, 2001

Dear Straight Dope:

I was driving past the cheese factory near my town yesterday and began ruminating on the existence of cheese. I know that cheese is made by doing something with milk (OK, I don't even know much about how cheese is made, I admit it), but then I wondered, "Who ever came up with the idea to do whatever it is they do to milk to make it into cheese? Why didn't they just drink the milk, or dispose of that milk which had gone bad? Was it an attempt to use up milk that could not be consumed within the pre-refrigeration window of opportunity? And how does butter fit into this equation? Does anyone know the answer to these questions?

Cheese, eh? Unfortunately, the Big Cheese, Cecil, was too busy to take on this one. You'll hafta settle for me. First, we'll learn a bit about how cheese is made, then we'll find whence it came. 

There are three basic steps common to the manufacture of all types of cheese. First, the protein casein in milk is transformed into solids, called curds. The curds are then separated from the remaining liquids, called whey, and finally they're pressed into molds of various shapes to be aged and ripened. Remember Little Miss Muffet? She was eating a type of cottage cheese when that big scary spider sat down beside her.

To encourage the formation of curds, a substance called rennin, (seeSDSTAFF Jill's work on rennet) is added to pasteurized milk that is slightly sour. Rennin works best in the presence of lactic acid, hence the sour milk.

Cheese makers, being in a hurry, add bacteria to the raw milk to speed up the souring process. The whey is drained, and the curds cut into small chunks to release the excess whey trapped inside. Various cheeses require different amounts liquid in their final form, and thus, different methods to remove the unnecessary liquids. The curds are then salted directly, or rubbed with a brine, and packed into the molds for aging and ripening. The salt serves two purposes: One, it acts as a preservative allowing a longer ripening period; and two, it pulls additional moisture from the curds. During ripening the various bacteria added earlier to speed up the souring continue to work and ultimately give individual cheeses their final characteristics.

The origin of cheese appears to be lost in the mists of time. There are, however, records of the Sumerians making and consuming cheese that date to about 3500 B.C. Homer's 9th century B.C. epic, the Odyssey, describes a scene with the Cyclops Polyphemus making cheese and pressing it into wicker baskets. 

It took the Romans, as with so many other things, to raise cheese-making to an art. They flavored their cheeses with various herbs and spices and also experimented with vegetable extracts in place of rennet. In 59 B.C., the soldiers of Gaius Julius Caesar took cheese along on their march to what is now France, a country known for some of the finest cheeses made.

During the Middle Ages, cheese-making became the dominion of the European monasteries. The monks, having loads of time on their hands, perfected the cheese-making process and developed some of the most famous cheeses of today.

And there it stood until the 19th Century. In those days cheese-making was still a cottage industry using the same techniques established by the monks of the 15th century. In 1851, a farmer in upstate New York, recognizing that his father, Jesse Williams, was the better cheese maker, started sending milk to him to be made into cheese. Many other local farmers followed suit and Jesse established the first known dedicated cheese factory.

So, while we really don't know just how cheese came about, we do know it is quite old. There's also this tale, repeated by many food historians, possibly apocryphal, about the discovery of cheese. The food historians credit cheese's discovery to an Arab nomad, more than 5000 years ago, who poured milk into the stomach of a freshly-killed sheep or goat to use as a canteen on an impending journey. The sun warmed the milk, allowing the rennet to work its magic. When the nomad stopped for a refreshing pick-me-up along the trail, he found, rather than his milk, curds and whey. So, figuring what the hell, he ate (and drank) it anyway.

And Little Miss Muffet would put sour lumpy milk in her mouth, but was scared of a simple spider. You explain that--I can't.

Butter, now, is a bit different. Butter is typically made of chilled cream or milk, churned lightly to separate the fat from the caseous and serous parts. Those parts become buttermilk and the fat becomes butter.

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